Why no “Havana syndrome” weapon in Ukraine?

The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has horrified much of the world, just as Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression has inspired the world. Black-and-white scenes of destruction, dislocation, and suffering from a lifetime ago in Europe now appear in high definition on our big-screen televisions. With all the advances in technology that have occurred since WWII, the rubble, the innocent victims, the rivers of refugees look sadly the same.

One supposed advance in technology we might have expected to see employed in Ukraine has been conspicuously absent. The television program Sixty Minutes recently ran a story related to Havana syndrome. The program sounded ominous warnings about a foreign power (Russia is the prime suspect) using a suspected pulsed directed-energy weapon to attack American officials on the grounds of the White House complex itself. It was suggested that this weapon could be used to diminish the cognitive capacity of high American officials during an international crisis, and weaken our national response by attacking our leaders. This follows the claims of several hundred diplomats and officials who suffer symptoms they believe to have resulted from exposure to such a weapon since 2016.

If Putin has a weapon of the sort described by Sixty Minutes, one cannot help but wonder why this weapon has not yet been deployed against Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky is the face of Ukrainian resistance. His calm, resolute determination in the face of this brutal invasion has played a major role in uniting Europe and much of the world against Putin.  Napoleon said, “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter”. If Putin had the means to damage Zelensky’s brain and disrupt his cognitive functioning, wouldn’t he have done so already? Surely Zelensky would be at least as vulnerable to such an attack in Kyiv as American officials are at the White House. An apparently increasingly desperate Putin has played the nuclear card, putting his atomic forces on alert. Reports suggest that cluster bombs and hyperbaric weapons have been or may be employed. If Putin is willing to take these barbaric steps, why wouldn’t he use the Havana weapon, if such a weapon exists?

Officials in capitals all over the world are working to punish Russia. Havana syndrome cases have been reported in many countries, so if they are the result of a Russian weapon, Putin apparently has the capability to strike nearly anywhere. Have Havana syndrome-like cases been reported in countries opposing Russia? If not, why not? If American officials are vulnerable to this weapon in our nation’s capital, wouldn’t this be the time for Putin to use it against us, as the US has worked so effectively to confront his aggression?

It is noteworthy that as yet the only world leader who has been identified as potentially suffering cognitive impairment is Vladimir Putin himself. American members of Congress have hinted that Putin is cognitively impaired in some way. This is somewhat ironic given that Putin is the one alleged to pose a risk to other world leaders through his beam weapon.

The victims of Havana syndrome are not imagining their symptoms: they are real, and debilitating, and need to be treated appropriately. In January, the Central Intelligence Agency reported that of the several hundred cases of so-called Havana syndrome that have arisen thus far, all but approximately two dozen can be explained by factors such as stress and other medical conditions. Psychosocial factors, from a scientific standpoint the most plausible (and unpopular) explanation of the syndrome, undoubtedly play a significant role in all or most of the cases. None of the cases can be confirmed as hostile acts of a foreign power. Failure to say out loud that symptoms may not be not the result of exposure to any weapon, Russian or otherwise, and may well be the result of psychosocial factors and stress will not be helpful to anyone in the long run, most importantly those suffering from these symptoms. Failure to fairly consider all potential explanations for Havana syndrome will unnecessarily consume government resources and complicate our international relations.

The continuing absence of reports of incidents matching the profile of Havana syndrome in Ukraine and around the world in this time of paramount crisis for Russia should be treated as one more data-point pointing us in the direction of a psychosocial explanation for Havana syndrome.

About the Author
George Mastroianni is an experimental psychologist, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force Academy. He currently teaches in the M.P.S. Psychology of Leadership program in the World Campus at the Pennsylvania State University. His recent books include Of Mind and Murder: Toward a More Comprehensive Psychology of the Holocaust; Misremembering the Holocaust: The Liberation of Buchenwald and the Limits of Memory; and Rumors of Injustice: The Cases of Ilse Koch and Rudolph Spanner.
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